Movie Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

(originally posted December 17 2014)

SPOILER WARNING: I spoil pretty much the entire damn movie. Proceed with caution.

I have been a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan since as long as I can remember.

I definitely remember having a Donatello doll when I was a child. My cousin and I loved the show and used to act it out (SHUT UP WE WERE 4 YOU’VE ALL DONE THE SAME OR YOU’RE BORING!!!!!). I watched the 80s show religiously and it would explain why I grew up with such a weird, irreverent sense of humour.

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Artist’s rendition of me as a child (or, more likely, as an adult if I had money for a costume like this).

Considering we now live in a world where nostalgia properties rule the galaxy (of cinema. The Cinema Galaxy?), it was kind of inevitable that we’d get another attempt at a live-action Turtles movie. What’s amazing, really, is that it took this long for them to try. I can put that down to two things:It was hard to escape the show, in fairness. It probably has the hugest marketing brand this side of Hello Kitty. It got on everything from fruit pies to basketball mascots (seriously, there’s a toy line where the Turtles play basketball). They had a (terrifying looking) rock concert, they had three movies and the original show lasted 10 years, which is an amazing lifespan for a Saturday morning cartoon.

  1. It probably went through all that bullshit a lot of Hollywood movies did (no, I didn’t look into its production history. No, I don’t particularly care to, either).
  2. Nostalgia. People who grew up with the Turtles are now adults themselves (or overgrown manchildren, such as myself), and they probably even have kids. Now they have an awesome thing to introduce to their children in a new, modernised form.

A possible third reason is that Nickelodeon were smart with their branding. After they acquired the rights to the Turtles from creators Eastman and Laird, they immediately went into producing a TV show. Which has been airing since 2012 (btw, this show is awesome and if you’re a fan you should be watching it yesterday). Now, not only do we have nostalgic fans going, but we also have younger kids who love the new show following suit.

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Seriously, though, WATCH THIS!!!!!!

But at the same time I shouldn’t push my beliefs and views of the Turtles onto new interpretations of them because they’re situated in a very particularly time with a very particular incarnation. And who am I, a guy who’d only really respond to the 80s version of the show, to dictate how this new direction should go? That didn’t stop people from complaining (and man, did they complain!), but this is a new TMNT for an entirely new audience.And you know what? That’s pretty damn awesome. Seriously, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a property that has entertained fans of all ages going onto 30 years now. I mean, when I heard Michael Bay was producing it, I had probably the same reaction that most fans did:

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The reason I’ve given you this intro is to point out that this is coming from a biased perspective. I am a fan of the series. But my views should not be forced onto you and, more importantly, your kids. If you have a child that enjoyed it, that is great. It warms my heart that a series I grew up with is still entertaining and wowing 4-year olds even to this day, and it’s up to them to find the version of the Turtles they love. Because I have mine.

Now, with that out of the way, what did I think of this movie? To be honest, I did not hate it. I didn’t love it, either.

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So I guess I should explain this. No, this isn’t the abysmal embarrassment most fans were expecting/hoping it to be, but it’s far from a great movie. It’s forgettable, at best.

Let’s start with what it does right, and that is the Turtles themselves. Now, while it’s incredibly annoying that they don’t appear until 20 minutes into the movie (more on that later), they get their personalities down perfectly. Every actor suited their character, except sadly for Johnny Knoxville as Leo and Tony Shalhoub as Splinter. Interestingly enough they’re the only cast members who didn’t provide the mo-cap for their characters either, so make of that what you will. Outside of those two, great job. While Michelangelo can be a little grating and his crush on April is *really* annoying, they feel like the characters from the various shows. They feel like the Turtles I grew up with (well, Raphael is different, but he’s only the goofy sarcastic guy in the 80s series, so I was used to that).

Now, I’m in the camp that thinks they look pretty awful. I like that they have different signifiers like marks or extra paraphernalia outside of their masks and weapons (something the 2012 show did), but they’re so cluttered that it really makes it hard to look directly at them. It’s like your mind goes to several different parts just to figure out all the shit they’re wearing. Plus, they’re freaking huge! Like, way, way too big. I didn’t realise the mutagen also gave them ‘roid rage!

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I’m sorry, Donnie! I still love you. YOU WERE ALWAYS MY FAVOURITE!!!! THE TEAM WOULD BE DEAD LONG AGO IF YOU DIDN’T SAVE THEIR ASSES ALL THE…sorry.

So, I guess that’s damning with faint praise. What about the rest of the cast? Well, I’m not a huge fan of Splinter’s actor (no offense meant to Shalhoub-I’ve heard he’s a good actor, he’s just not good in this role), but he also looks freaking terrible. Like, really bad. He’s not in the movie all that much (they knock him out halfway through the movie and forget about him until he’s convenient for an emotional moment), so it’s not a huge detractor.

The supporting cast are pretty solid. Will Arnett plays the main comic relief, Vernon, who’s very different from his 80s series counterpart, but insanely likeable because he’s Will Arnett. Frankly, he’s probably too good for the role he’s given. William Fichtner is brilliant as the sub-villain Eric Sacks (more on him later). Whoopi Goldberg has a really random role as April’s boss and she’s only in two scenes (I heard she did the movie for her daughter, but seriously, she’s Whoopi friggin’ Goldberg! Give her more to do).

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Nope, didn’t forget about her. And yes, the fact that her coat is a reference to the jumpsuit is really cool.

Obviously, the biggest star (and point of contention) was Megan Fox as April O’Neil. When I first heard she was cast, I had to eye roll and automatically dismiss this movie because I’m really cool like that. The first trailer didn’t help any, as she didn’t even talk! So, when watching this…she isn’t bad. She’s clearly trying, and she does get some pretty decent moments.

I don’t think she’s the right fit for this role, though; she lacks the feistiness and charisma. What’s worse is that her character feels underwritten. At the start of the movie, she’s complaining about getting all the shitty ‘happy happy’ new jobs and not digging her clearly hungry claws into serious reporting work. That’s a great character arc; someone who fits into the ‘Morning A.M.’ personality, but wants more job satisfaction. And then she loses her job and her eagerness to be a respected reporter is ignored outside of one throwaway line at the end of the movie.

I guess I’ll move onto one of the biggest issues with this movie; it takes forever to get going! As the arc they were building up for April is ignored once the Turtles show up, nothing really happens in the plot outside of Sack’s introduction and his connection to April…until the Turtles show up. I have no problem with them building up the Turtles’ introduction if there was something going on in the movie that had any relevance after they showed up. You could have cut from the animated intro (that was pretty awesome, I have no real complaints there) to the scene where April and Sacks meet each other, throw in a bit more dialogue about how April wants to ‘make a difference’ as a reporter and pretty much lose nothing. Even for a dumb little kid’s movie, that’s not how you engage an audience and tell a story. That’s filler.

Thankfully, after the hilariously all over the place fight scene in the sewer, the movie picks up steam until the wa-haaaaay too long climax with Shredder on the rooftop. Once the plot kicks in the painful expository scenes get dialed down a lot and the film keeps a lot of momentum going until the end. There aren’t a lot of great character interaction moments, but you’re never bored.

I guess that brings up the next issue: the fight sequences. They’re choppy, terribly edited, confusing and usually in the dark so you have no clue what’s going on. They’re so hard to follow and keep engaged in, I usually just switch out until they’re over. Which is a shame, as this is the Turtles we’re talking about! A cartoon with an 80s animation budget kept me more interested than a big-budgeted Hollywood film.

That doesn’t mean the action scenes aren’t well done, however (yes, I consider them separate). There is that amazing sequence where the Turtles rush down the sewers which is engaging, fun and gets across their skills as ninjas so well (and ends on a fart joke. Kinda sums up the movie as a whole, tbh). And, of course, the hill scene which is energise, surprising and so much fun. Both these scenes incorporate the camera’s inability to sit still to great effect, so they get a thumbs up, to quote a film critic much, much better than I am.

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It also gives Donnie a chance to be a bad-ass 🙂
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Come on-overdone slow motion aside, you cannot deny how cool this moment is.

One more thing about the direction. The director of this movie is Jonathan Liesbsman (not Bay, he only produced it). I’ve never seen any of his other movies but, judging from the critical reaction, and this film, he’s not very good. You can tell a lot about a director’s talent by how they handle exposition scenes. They must be a pain to shoot and keep interesting (no matter how good your dialogue is, and good Jesus the dialogue in this movie isn’t good, basic direction for a dialogue-heavy scene is one way to kill your movie stone dead). The talking scenes in this movie are terrible, and so completely lifeless, it’s not only obvious that the CG characters aren’t in the scene together, I begin to question if the human ones are even together, as well.

Finally, I get to our villains of the piece. It is so goddamn obvious that the guy they cast to be Shredder (who does great in the role, he’s subtly intimidating in the three scenes he’s in) was not originally meant to be him. His scenes look like they were filmed in post, with the actors rushed in to read and leave, and he dubbed over dialogue meant for Eric Sack’s character.

Now, I get why they changed this, and I respect it. Whitewashing is not something I adhere to, and this movie is not good enough for me to ignore it if it happened here. But this new Shredder is so lazily thrown into the scene, it’s amazing they even cast the guy and just had the Hulk Shredder go without dialogue (though I guess that would just make him a henchman, which also isn’t good). This also explains why Sack’s gets the lamest villain ending this side of Wormtail from the Harry Potter movie series.

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Yes, this thing looks ridiculous. Like, GLORIOUSLY ridiculous!

With that out of the way, I just have one more point to make. The villains’ plans make absolutely no sense. To display this, let me use a list because I love lists:

  1. So Sacks and Shredder want to rule New York and get rich by infecting it with a major disease and then curing is using the mutagen. Okay. How do we know that will heal them? The only time we see it heal anyone is Splinter, who already has the mutagen in his blood stream. These two are acting like they know it will heal them, which doesn’t really add up. These turtles weren’t mortally wounded when they were experimented on, they just grew into Sumo wannabes.
  2. For that matter, why not use Splinter? He clearly has the mutagen in his body and he’d be a hell of a lot easier to catch than 4 massive turtles. Or are you trying to tell me the physiology of reptiles is closer to humans than the physiology of a rat?
  3. How strong is this virus? If it’s too strong, you’ve just wiped out New York. If it only kills a few, or act like a virus does, you’ve still made New York a quarantine zone that nobody will be able to enter. You can’t rule an empty city, either way you’ve just doomed this place to death.
  4. Do you not think that people will put two and two together and realise the virus came from your freaking tower?! The tower people likely know that Sacks owns-it’s his building! This gets even dumber when Shredder tries to just drop the damn thing to release the virus.

There are probably more things, but frankly I’m probably thinking too much about it. Maybe this wouldn’t bother me so much if the movie didn’t take itself so freaking seriously. Despite the jokes and the pop culture references (if you have a problem with those, what TMNT show did you watch?), it’s got this serious tone that isn’t offset with goofy craziness like the ’03 cartoon was. But alas, the plans were likely dumber in the 80’s cartoon, so what do I know?

So, that’s my opinion on the movie. Is it good? Not really. Does it matter? Probably not. I doubt the TMNT movies I grew up with were very good, but I still love them. If kids love this film, that’s all that matters. And if they just keep that winning formula and familiar personalities, I could see kids really gravitating towards this franchise.

I didn’t like it, but it’s not for me. I don’t think it’s a spit on the face of the franchise, so really that’s all that matters. This is a new Turtles for a new generation, so let’s just hope the kids of tomorrow embrace the heroes in a half-shell.

That rap song at the end sucked balls, though.

5/10

Notes:

-The score for this is ‘generic superhero theme #19,835. Until the fight with Splinter and Shredder, where it goes…Gladiator.

-Because people will kill me if I don’t mention it, yes, the elevator scene is hilarious. It doesn’t fit the tone of the movie at all, but it fits the tone and personality of the Turtles. It is easily one of the best moments.

-The actress who played Karai (Minae Noji) is really good. I wish they had given her more to do. I love that she’s older, too.

-For the record, the actor who played Shredder is named Tohoru Masumune and he is also really good. I find it deeply ironic that people were complaining (rightly) about the whitewashing of his character when it became clear that Eric Sacks was supposed to be him, and yet he’s one of the very few Asian actors to portray the character (one of the others, James Saito, also played him in the live-action movies).

-Loved the little nods and callbacks to the previous shows. My favourite was probably hearing ‘Tonight I dine on turtle soup’ in Japanese. It’s the little things in life.

-Cynic that I am, it does touch me when I hear the Turtles call Splinter ‘dad’. I even found Raph’s speech really sweet, if a tad contrived and overwritten.

-Seriously, why hire Whoopi Goldberg and only put her in 2 scenes?!

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